GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS-I FEEL A SONG.
GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS-I FEEL A SONG.
For too long, Gladys Knight had been in the shadow of Diana Ross at Motown. Between 1967 and 1973, Gladys Knight and The Pips released eight albums. Then in 1973, when her contract with Motown ran out, she signed to a label where she would be wanted and appreciated. That label was Buddah Records, where Gladys Knight and The Pips enjoyed the most successful period in her career. During this period, Gladys Knight and The Pips released released I Feel A Song, which was recently rereleased by Funky Town Grooves.
Many people within the music industry felt Gladys should’ve left Motown Records years ago. It’s no exaggeration to say that Gladys was under-appreciated at Motown. Although Gladys Knight and The Pips had an abundance of talent,it seemed that other Motown acts were given special treatment when it came to new material and producers. That must have proved frustrating and for Gladys Knight and The Pips, they must have felt they deserved better. So when the chance came to sign to Buddah Records, Gladys realised that this was her opportunity to step out of Ms. Ross’ shadow and enjoy the most successful period of her career.
Now signed to Buddah Records, Gladys Knight and The Pips released Imagination in October 1973. Imagination reached number nine in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R& Charts. Not only did Imagination surpass the success of any of Gladys Knight and The Pips’ ten previous albums, but it gave the group their first gold disc. It also featured three US R&B number one singles, Midnight Train To Georgia, I’ve Got To Use My Imagination and You’re The Best Thing That Happened To Me. This was the start of the most successful period in the Empress Of Soul’s career.
Following Imagination, Gladys Knight and The Pips were asked to record the soundtrack to Claudine. Written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, Claudine was released in March 1974 reaching number thirty-five in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R& Charts. This resulted in another gold disc for Gladys Knight and The Pips. Although there weren’t any number one singles, On and On reached number five in the US Billboard 200 and number two in the US R& Charts. Gladys Knight was on a roll.
For what was Gladys Knight and The Pips’ first studio album since Imagination, some of the biggest names in songwriting contributed nine songs. These nine songs became I Feel A Song. Jim Weatherly, who’d penned Midnight Train To Georgia and You’re the Best Thing That Happened To Me, contributed a trio of tracks. They were Love Finds Its Own Way, The Going Ups And The Coming Downs and The Need To Be. Bill Withers wrote and produced Better Go Your Way and Tenderness Is His Way. Burt Bacharach and Neil Simon cowrote seconds, Ronnie Miller Don’t Burn Down The Bridge and Tony Camillo and Mary Sawyer cowrote I Feel A Song (In My Heart). The other track was a medley of The Way We Were and Try To Remember. The Way We were was written by Marvin Hamlisch with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, while Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones cowrote Try To Remember. With the material for I Feel A Song ready, Gladys Knight and The Pips headed to the studio.
Recording of I Feel A Song took place at Bell Sound Studios and Bell Sound Studios in New York. Just like Imagination, various production teams and musicians worked on I Feel A Song. Although Gladys Knight and The Pips co-produced seven tracks, along with other production teams, they only produced Don’t Burn Down The Bridge. With so many producers working on I Feel A Song, this could either be a success like Imagination, or sound like a disparate collection of songs? One way to measure this success is through album and single sales.
On the release of I Feel A Song in November 1974, it reached number seventeen in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. This made in three consecutive gold discs for Gladys Knight and The Pips’ albums released on Buddah Records. Even better, the lead single, I Feel A Song reached number twenty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Then in 1975, Love Finds Its Own Way reached number forty-seven in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts. The final single was the live medley of The Way We Were and Try To Remember. It reached number eleven in the US Billboard 100 and number six in the US R&B Charts. According to record buyers, I Feel A Song was a commercial success. What about the critics?
Critics gave I Feel A Song a positive response. They were maybe being to hard on the album. Many compared I Feel A Song to Imagination. In many ways, that’s unfair. After all songs like Midnight Train To Georgia and You’re The Best Thing (That Happened To Me) are once in an artist’s career. Comparing I Feel A Song To Imagination was never going to be a fair fight. There was only going to be one winner. Instead, I’ll look at I Feel A Song on its own merits.
I Feel A Song (In My Heart) opens I Feel A Song. Arranged, conducted and produced by Tony Camillo, it’s the perfect song to open the album. Emotive and dramatic describes the arrangement. Driven along by a piano and funky rhythm section, Gladys unleashes a vocal that’s full of hurt, heartache and hope. She’s down, but not out. Not that she’s found someone new. Joy and hope, hope for the future fills her defiant, powerful vocal. It’s swept along amidst swathes of strings, blazing horns, harmonies and the piano, which is ever-present.
Love Finds Its Own Way has an almost melancholy, thoughtful piano-lead, introduction. It’s understated, with the rhythm section marking time while memories come flooding back to Gladys. Swings sweep in, harmonies coo, horns growl and the arrangement grows in power, beauty and drama. Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise’s arrangement and production are masterful. They set the scene for one of Gladys most emotive, heartfelt and soul-searching vocals.
It’s obvious that Burt Bacharach arranged and produced Seconds. It has his “sound.” You can neither fault the quality of his arrangement nor production. Far from it. From its understated, melodic introduction and the moment Gladys’ heartbroken, grief-stricken vocal, you admire the quality of the song. The way the bursts of Fender Rhodes and lush, floaty strings are used provide a wistful, thoughtful backdrop. Then at the bridge, the drama builds and builds, as Gladys showcases a vocal that sounds as it’s lived, loved and survived the lyrics. Despite all that, and the song’s undeniable quality, it sounds as if it belongs on an album released circa 1967 or 1968, not 1974.
The Going Ups And The Coming Downs, just like Love Finds Its Own Way, is a Jim Weatherly song. Produced by Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, the arrangement literally floats into being. Woodwind and strings combine with the rhythm section and keyboards. After a burst of drama, things settle down and Gladys’ vocal is ushered in. It’s a mixture of confusion, frustration and even anger. She’s almost exasperated, at her boyfriend’s constantly changing his mind. As the bass leads the arrangement along, her vocal is a cathartic outpouring of frustration, in the hope he’ll mend his ways. Whether he will, is another thing? Deep down, her exasperation means she knows he won’t.
The decision to a add a medley of live tracks midway through a studio album seems strange. However, if you must The Way We Were and Try To Remember seem as good a choice as any. Gladys’ half-spoken vocal during sets the scene for what is a vocal masterclass. In her hands, the song comes to life, as question, probes and ponders: “would we, should we.” It seems very real. Pathos and poignant describes her vocal. With the orchestra behind her the song comes alive and reaches a dramatic, emotive crescendo. Given how Gladys transforms these tracks, a studio version should’ve been recorded, especially with an orchestra behind her.
Better You Go Your Way marks a change in direction. Uber funky and soulful, The Pips are transformed into foxy funakateers. They set the scene for Gladys. She becomes a disco diva and struts and vamps her way through the song. Behind her wah-wah guitars, swathes of strings and the funky rhythm section provide the backdrop on a track that’s funky, soulful and dance-floor friendly.
Don’t Burn Down The Bridge was penned by Ronnie Miller and sees another change in direction. Flourishes of strings and piano give way to an arrangement that’s a real fusion of influences. Everything from country, funk, Motown, rock and Southern is thrown into the mix. There’s also a funk influence, as Gladys unleashes a feisty vocal. The Pips add accusing vocals and harmonies, and like the piano and Hammond organ, add to the drama of this mini soap opera.
Straight away, The Need To Be, which was written by Jim Weatherly, reminds me of You’re The Best Thing (That Happened To Me). The similarities are uncanny. It’s the chords used, lyrics and arrangement that lead to this comparison. With a similarly understated arrangement the song unfolds. Sometimes, you’re almost waiting for Gladys to sing You’re The Best Thing (That Happened To Me). She doesn’t though. Similarly, strings and harmonies are used as a backdrop for Gladys’ vocal. Despite the similarities Gladys immerses herself in the song and makes the song work. It’s an outpouring of power, passion and sincerity.
Bill Withers’ Tenderness Is His Way closes I Feel A Song. A crystalline, jazz-tinged guitar and piano usher in Gladys’ vocal. Needy, heartfelt and impassioned, she slowly and almost dramatically delivers the lyrics. Behind her, the arrangement unfolds. Strings sweep, while vibes, the rhythm section and Hammond organ combine, while the guitar plays a leading role. Gladys is the leading lady and without a doubt, delivers the definitive version of this song.
Although Gladys Knight and The Pips released the soundtrack to Claudine between Imagination and I Feel A Song, to compare like with like, Imagination and I Feel A Song were compared. As I said earlier, that’s almost unjust. After all, Imagination featured a trio of tracks that were among the best Gladys Knight and The Pips ever recorded. They’d never been given a trio of songs as good as Midnight Train To Georgia, You’re The Best Thing (That Happened To Me) and Where Peaceful Waters Flow at Motown. Mind you, never again would they have three songs as good as this trio. Imagination was essentially, a turning point in Gladys Knight and The Pips’ career. It was their most successful album. That was their musical nirvana. Gladys Knight and The Pips had climbed their mountain, now the only way was down.
Good as I Feel A Song is, far from a flawless album. Mind you, neither was Imagination. At least on Gladys takes charge of lead vocal on every track. We’re spared the intervention of The Pips on lead vocals. As for I Feel A Song’s faults, they’re minor ones. Seconds which Burt Bacharach arranged and produced, has a dated, sixties sound. It’s as if he’s sticking to his previously successful formula, despite the seventies being well underway. The times they were a changing. It’s just shame Burt didn’t seem to realise this. Then there’s Jim Weatherly’s The Need To Be. Just like Seconds, the quality is undeniable. The problem is, it’s just like the long lost relation of You’re The Best Thing (That Happened To Me). Maybe Jim hoped that he’d enjoy a similar success with The Need To Be. My only other criticism is the inclusion of a live medley on I Feel A Song. Even given how potent and moving a medley it is, studio versions would’ve been much better. Gladys was made for The Way We Were and Try To Remember. She could’ve made the song her own, especially with an orchestra behind her. Apart from these three minor points, I Feel A Song is one of Gladys Knight and The Pips finest albums for Buddah Records.
Indeed, I Feel A Song, which was recently rereleased by Funky Town Grooves, along with Imagination are essential listening for fans of Gladys Knight and The Pips. This was during a period where Gladys Knight and The Pips reinvented themselves. Between Imagination, which was released in October 1973 and Second Anniversary in October 1975, Gladys Knight and The Pips released five albums. Each of these albums were certified gold and four reached number one in the US R&B Charts. Gladys Knight had stepped out of the shadow, taking centre-stage, where she rightly belong. Motown’s loss was Buddah Records gain, as albums like Imagination and I Feel A Song prove. Both Imagination and I Feel A Song feature Gladys Knight and The Pips as this golden period unfolded. Standout Tracks: I Feel A Song (In My Heart), Love Finds Its Own Way, The Need To Be and Tenderness Is His Way.
GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS-I FEEL A SONG.